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My ant could paint that!

September 9, 2009

What invertebrates’ creations tell us about art

By Text by Roger White / Photographs by Noah Charney

While compiling images for a guidebook to invertebrates and their tracks, Western Massachusetts-based biologist Noah Charney began entertaining an unscientific notion. Looking at the complicated patterns created by bees as they excised circular patches from leaves, the delicate arrangement of tiny hatchmarks made by a slug chewing its way across an algae-covered branch, or the radiating paths marking the progress of beetles through the bark of a fallen log, he made an observation: it looked like the bugs were making art.

A pattern cut by leafcutter bees furnishing their nests in Nashville.We’re often helpless (even those of us, like Charney, with a master’s degree in biology) against a tendency to anthropomorphize nature: we’re forever seeing rock formations that look like faces, or animal behaviors that remind us of our own. Suspending his disbelief, Charney put together an online gallery of photos devoted to the question of invertebrate aesthetics. The question was, if insects are artists, what kind of artists are they?

As it happens, insects are Modernists. Their work is suffused with abstraction, pattern, and process. They favor bold, all-over compositions that emphasize the physicality of their materials: the rich colors of soil and leaves, the intricate interior structure of wood, the texture of sand and stone. They turn simple actions like chewing, carving, and egg-laying into complex displays of repetition and variation.

Read more at the Boston Globe here.


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